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Yuri Kochiyama, Civil Rights Activist, Dies at 93


By WILLIAM YARDLEY JUNE 4, 2014

Yuri Kochiyama, a civil rights activist who formed an unlikely friendship


with Malcolm X when he was still promoting black nationalism and later
cradled his head in her hands as he lay dying from gunshot wounds in
1965, died on Sunday in Berkeley, Calif. She was 93.
Her granddaughter Akemi Kochiyama confirmed the death.
Mrs. Kochiyama, the child of Japanese immigrants who settled in
Southern California, knew discrimination well by the time she was a young
woman. During World War II she spent two years in an internment camp
for Japanese-Americans in Arkansas, a searing experience that also
exposed her to the racism of the Jim Crow South.
A few years after the war, she married William Kochiyama, whom she
had met at the camp, and the couple moved to New York in 1948. They
spent 12 years in public housing in Manhattan, in the Amsterdam Houses
on the Upper West Side, where most of their neighbors were black and
Puerto Rican, before moving to Harlem.
The couple had become active in the civil rights movement when Mrs.
Kochiyama met Malcolm X for the first time at a Brooklyn courthouse in
October 1963. He was surrounded by supporters, mostly young black men,
when she approached him. She told him she wanted to shake his hand, to
congratulate him, she recalled in an interview with The New York Times in
1996.
“I admire what you’re doing,” she told him, “but I disagree with some
of your thoughts.”
He asked which ones.
“Your harsh stand on integration,” she said.
He agreed to meet with her later, and by 1964 Mrs. Kochiyama and
her husband had befriended him. Early that year Malcolm X began
moving away from the militant Nation of Islam, to which he belonged,
toward beliefs that were accepting of many kinds of people. He sent the
Kochiyamas postcards from his travels to Africa and elsewhere.
One, mailed from Kuwait on Sept. 27, 1964, read: “Still trying to
travel and broaden my scope since I’ve learned what a mess can be made
by narrow-minded people. Bro. Malcolm X.”
The following February, Mrs. Kochiyama was in the audience at the
Audubon Ballroom in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan
waiting to hear Malcolm X address a new group he had founded, the
Organization of Afro-American Unity, when there was a burst of gunfire.
She ran toward the stage.
“I just went straight to Malcolm, and I put his head on my lap,” she
recalled. “He just lay there. He had difficulty breathing, and he didn’t
utter a word.”
A powerful photograph of her holding him accompanied an article
about the assassination in the March 5, 1965, issue of Life magazine.
Mrs. Kochiyama was born Mary Yuriko Nakahara on May 19, 1921, in
San Pedro, Calif. An outgoing student in high school, she played sports
and wrote for the school newspaper. She said in interviews that she was
mostly unaware of political issues until her father, Seiichi, was taken into
custody by the F.B.I. shortly after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on
Dec. 7, 1941.
Although ill, Mr. Nakahara, a successful fish merchant, was held and
interrogated for several weeks before being released on Jan. 20, 1942. He
died the next day. By the spring, the rest of the family was among the
120,000 Japanese-Americans sent to internment camps across the
country.
In the 1980s, the Kochiyamas sought government reparations for
Japanese-Americans who had been interned. In 1988, Congress approved
a plan to pay $20,000 to each of the estimated 60,000 surviving internees.
Besides her granddaughter Akemi, her survivors include a daughter,
Audee Kochiyama-Holman; three sons, Eddie, Jimmy and Tommy; eight
other grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. Another son, Billy, died
in the 1970s, and a daughter, Aichi, died in 1989.
Her husband died in 1993. He had been interned in Arkansas before
he joined the all-Japanese 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which
became one of the most decorated units in American military history.
In the 1960s and ’70s, the sofa in the Kochiyamas’ apartment was
regularly occupied by activists in need of a place to sleep. Years later, Mrs.
Kochiyama helped organize campaigns to free activists and others whom
she believed had been wrongly imprisoned, including Mumia Abu-Jamal,
the former Black Panther and radio journalist sentenced to death in the
killing of a Philadelphia police officer in 1981. In 2012, his sentence was
reduced to life without parole.
Mrs. Kochiyama, who never graduated from college, read constantly
and widely. On Tuesday, her granddaughter Akemi opened for the first
time a journal of favorite quotations that Mrs. Kochiyama had collected
and given to her several years ago.
“There were so many different writers and thinkers,” said Akemi
Kochiyama, who is pursuing a doctorate in cultural anthropology. “It’s
Emerson, it’s Keats and Yeats and José Marti. It’s political thinkers. It’s
Marcus Garvey. It’s everything.”
Mrs. Kochiyama was an inspiration herself. For its 2011 album
“Cinemetropolis,” the Seattle hip-hop group Blue Scholars composed a
song about her. The refrain: “When I grow up I want to be just like Yuri
Kochiyama.”
A version of this article appears in print on June 5, 2014, on page B19 of the New York edition with
the headline: Yuri Kochiyama, 93, Civil Rights Activist.
© 2014 The New York Times Company

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